How to Train for a Marathon
The whole reason we call it a marathon was because Philippides ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the Greek victory home, and shortly collapsed shortly after making the 26 mile run! It is understandable to be a little worried about training for the race yourself, however it might make you feel better that Philippides had also ran 140 miles twice and fought a battle in the same week before he ran that “first marathon.”
We’ll go over a few of the keys to training for a marathon. All of these will apply whether you are training for your first marathon or are a seasoned pro!
Marathon training is all about avoiding the “wall.” Sometimes this is called bonking, but there are three main causes for this:
- Structural Integrity - runners who don’t have the ability to handle running 26.2 miles in one go. Something inevitably fails causing pace to slow down.
- Improper Pacing - runners who go out too fast for what they can handle end up having issues that force them to slow down.
- Fueling & Hydration- when the gas tank starts to run low, our brain decides to go into low power mode.
Once we look at the three causes we can start addressing them and training to avoid them.
Generally this means getting your body ready to pound the pavement for 26.2 miles or at least 2 hours (unless you’re Eliud Kipchoge). Obviously the long run is important, but so is the general mileage you are doing. Plus, we need to make sure we are strong enough to handle that volume of running. People don’t appreciate how hard it is to run that far!
Strength Training - To actually get strong, running is not enough of a stimulus to get stronger. So to do that we need to do some strength training. In general strength training for runners should actually be heavier and less reps. Essentially you are already doing a lot of low weight high repetition movements! Lifting has been shown to reduce injury rates by 30-50% and increase running economy by 2-8%. By getting stronger you can run faster and be healthier because you can handle more. Best movements are Squats, Lunges, Step Ups as well as trunk stability and calf raises.
Long Runs - These are probably the most important workout you can do when you’re training for a marathon. They are after all the most similar thing you’ll do! You want to slowly build them up, generally an approach of 3 steps forward and 1 back works. As in the first week might be 12 miles, then 13, 14 and then 13 miles during the down fourth week. You also want to throw workouts into the long run. It’s a great way to get used to running faster when you are tired. A few of my favorites- Finish the last 5k or so at or faster than your goal marathon pace. Alternating miles, so that you do 1 mile at or just below that goal pace, and then a mile easier( often after a warm up of 3 miles you do 10 miles of 1mi@ 105% GMP, 1mi@ 95% GMP)
Training Load - As we talked about it’s not all about the long run, we also have to get the body used to the pounding of running, and one of the better ways of measuring that is total volume. Many people will measure this by looking at your weekly mileage or your MPW (Miles Per Week). However this is a pretty flat measurement of your training. It’ll count an all out sprint the exact same as your slowest shuffle. So how do you calculate training load? Simply, there isn’t a great answer! This is where a coach can be extra helpful, but generally it’s just good to keep in mind that we need to get our bodies ready to run and creating some fatigue is okay.
Injury Prevention - Just a few other things to throw in that can help with avoiding an injury. If you can stay healthy you can keep running and build up that training volume easier!
This is a much more straightforward section, simply put the marathon isn’t that hard of a pace to run. At least it doesn’t start out that way! What really makes the marathon difficult is doing that pace for hours and hours. Typically that marathon pace ends up being about a 5/10 on the RPE (rating of perceived exertion) scale. Not the most specific answer…how about using HR data?
The average HR for most well trained runners ends up being around 88% of max. However this doesn’t mean you go straight to that 88% because typically runners HR’s drift up as the race continues on. So you could aim for around 85% max and that would be a good guess. You could also use a race equivalent tool such as Daniels VDOT score. The closer the race distance is to the marathon the better the prediction (as in a Half Marathon is going to give you more accuracy than a 10k.)
You can take any of those metrics and run your workouts at and around those paces so you can test them out and see how easy or hard they feel. In general it is easier, and much more fun to go out a little conservative and pick it up(and pass people) than it is to be in the pain cave and getting passed.
FUELING & HYDRATION
This is probably the area that has changed the most over the past couple of years! For a lot of this we can thank the Breaking 2 Project by Nike. Researching for that they found one of the biggest reasons people slowed down was because they were running out of freely available carbohydrates. Essentially when the gas tank warning light comes on we start to throttle how much power we can put out. Unlike cars though we can fuel during the race!
Fueling - We used to be taught you needed at least 100 calories per hour, or about the equivalent of one gel every hour. Now research shows we need about 60-100g of carbs per hour! (Each g of carbs is about 4 calories)
The problem has always been that taking that much sugar in could wreak havoc on our stomachs! Good news is that we can train for this; slowly increasing how much we are taking with our training. There are also some fuels such as Maurten that work differently. Lab proven to create less GI distress and they can really pack in the carbs in a smaller, easier to digest package.
Hydration - Most runners, heck most people, walk around slightly dehydrated most of the time. It’s one of the easiest places we can improve. Water by itself isn’t usually enough because too much water leads to something called hyponatremia which actually kills more runners every year than dehydration does! That’s why it’s so important to get those electrolytes in with your water. You can also get your carbohydrates in as well, mixing different concentrations depending on the heat and humidity. While hydration is highly dependent on the individual there are a few universalities we can keep in mind:
We are just scratching the surface of what goes into running a marathon, but if you can take heed of these you’ll be in a better position than most other runners! We took a look at the main reasons people fall short of their marathon goals and how to prevent it. If you have any other questions please ask! You can find Coach Jack Hackett at infinityrunco.com or on Instagram @infinityrunco
Leave a comment